This is the first of a two part blog discussing how social workers and other practitioners can successfully engage and interact with children. I believe the application can be made to individuals across the life course!
According to the Oxford dictionary to engage, in this context, is to occupy or attract someone’s interest or attention; while to interact is for someone to do something in such a way that has an effect on them and the other person.
I’ve spoken to countless Social Work and Family Support practitioners who tell me how difficult they find it to sustain the child’s interest in engaging with them during visits and they struggle to gain the information they require from children.
Some practitioners have told me, “The child I see is closed and he doesn’t really want to engage…”; so I become curious and say, “Tell me how you are trying to engage them.” It’s important to remember that making the child feel comfortable to talk and going at their pace is imperative; everything else is peripheral. This is a prerequisite to building and sustaining rapport, which will lead to good quality interaction and engagement.
Engagement – Lets start at the beginning!
When we think about the reasons why we are trying to engage the child we are seeing, we are led to conclude that it is to make an impact of some kind, right? So the priority is to develop rapport with that child. This can be achieved within seconds, for example, acknowledgement: a smile, eye contact, kneeling to their level, a wave, wearing a happy and inviting facial expression, etc.
Once rapport has been built you have an opening to move the interaction into a different phase; the verbal and physical. This can include saying hello, while smiling; introducing yourself, asking them about themselves and their day, extending a hand shake or standing in close proximity, for example. We all know this as ‘breaking the ice’, which is just as effective and necessary with children as it is adults.
Even without the child engaging verbally, they are likely to be engaging physically or by using non-verbal communication because you have already gained their interest and attention. So, lets say the child responds positively with a smile, saying hello and is engaging in conversation with you. It might all seem like the ‘superficial talk’, but it serves an important role in the child developing trust in you so that you can continue to successfully engage them over time and so that your work can be a meaningful part of their life.
It’s important that the child knows something about you, your role, why you’re seeing them and what you have to offer that will benefit them. Now the last bit here is often forgotten – How do they benefit from opening up to you? Questions we should ask ourselves as practitioners is, “Why should this child tell me anything about their personal life, experiences, interests, etc? What do they understand about why I need to speak with them and what good will come of it for them?” This is especially important for practitioners who will see the child regularly as part of an assessment or support plan.
Think back to when you were a child. Imagine having to see someone who you did not ask to see bombarding you with questions about yourself. Imagine you have no clue why they are asking these questions, where and who the information is going to, when the visits will stop or what will happen at the end of it all. It’s usually incredibly intimidating, in such a context, for children to see adults who are outside of their inner circle and who they have not opted to see; so there’s a duty to make engagement and interaction informative and fun, where possible!
Build Trust and likability
Be approachable, friendly and not in a rush when seeing children. They know when you’re fobbing them off! They need to know that you want to spend time with them and that you are genuinely interested in them and their experiences.
Engagement is the first part in being able to develop and secure a good working relationship with any individual. It’s important that time is taken to get this right when working with children, as it tells them what they can expect from you and how you are going to work with them.
To learn and how you can merge engagement with interaction, have a look at this blog.